Thursday, July 8, 2010

British Library--July 8, 2010

On July 8, we visited the British Library, the copyright deposit library for everything published in the United Kingdom and Ireland. The British library's collection is approximately 170 million items and takes up somewhere between 800 and 900 miles of linear shelving. The collection expands to fill an additional 8 miles of shelves every year. Approximately 35 million of those items reside in the London location.

The London location was designed by Professor Sir Colin St. John Wilson. It was intended to resemble a navy ship. The building opened in 1997.

The library complex takes up a complete city block near St. Pancras Train Station and features the largest subterranean tower in Europe.

As our tour guide described it to us, the purpose of the British Library (as defined by statute) is to 1) acquire published output of the nation, 2) keep that output forever, and 3) make that output available to the public within one month of its publication. It also serves in a leadership capacity for library and information science in the UK.

The library is a beautiful and interesting building to explore. It has many attractive touches such as this giant sculpture of a medieval library book, complete with ball and chain.

These touch screen "Turning the Pages" kiosks are available throughout the library. They allow the user to flip through rare books from the library's collection. I looked at Jane Austen's The History of England (juvenilia) and Henry VIII's Psalter. I particularly enjoyed the optional audio commentary about points of interest in the items. I think these kiosks are a great way to provide access to digital collections to the public.

This is a model of the library building. Its ship-like shape is much more apparent when looking at the model.

Most of the London collection is stored in the underground stacks (shown in the model above). This storage area is kept at approximately 17 degrees Celsius and 50% humidity. These conditions are an attempt to find a balance between what is best for the books and what is comfortable for the people who work in the area.

The stacks are closed to the public and items are delivered from the stacks to the reading rooms by means of an Automated Book Retrieval System. The reader requests an item through an electronic system. These photos show a dispatch room that is part of the system.

The request generates 2 printed slips. A Library Assistant locates the requested item in the stacks. One slip is left in the item's spot on the shelf and the other is placed in the item. The barcode on the book slip is scanned and placed in a bin on the mechanical book handling system. The barcode on the bin is also scanned. The item and bin are checked by optical scanners throughout the journey to their final destination.

The ABRS is remarkably efficient and runs smoothly. It includes about 1.25 miles of rolling track and has over 22,000 possible routs. The computer system monitors traffic and congestion and can reroute items in order move them more quickly. The goal is for items to arrive within one hour and 10 minutes of the reader's request. The last system breakdown occurred in November of 2007.

The King's Library is a collection of books donated by George III. One of the conditions of the donation was that it always be displayed to the public. In order to achieve this, the books are displayed in a glass tower in the middle of the library.

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